Saturday, July 18, 2009

Go Bang

(or: White Riot, continued.)

I was reminded of those officers and their obstinate refusal to feel ashamed of braining protesters with billy clubs by a recent flurry of media attention for the thirtieth anniversary of Disco Demolition Night. Notorious within the mostly non-overlapping worlds of sports fans and disco historians, Disco Demolition Night was a promotional stunt that took place at Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox, on July 12, 1979. Attendees were allowed in for only 98 cents provided they brought a disco record to add to a large pile of them set to be detonated between the two games of the night’s double-header. As people in the stands flung records at the players on the field, the crowd’s mood turned ugly. After the records were blown up, chaos erupted and eventually riot police on horseback shut the thing down (there are many more details in the linked articles below).

Articles in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Reader all retell the event in warmly nostalgic terms, positioning it mostly as a wacky story from sports history or an amusing time capsule from the outrageously unfashionable late ’70s. These articles are all written from a perspective where the idea that “disco sucks” and therefore deserved to die—and indeed, as everyone notes, DDN proved to be a turning point in the genre's fortunes; this public execution actually worked—doesn’t warrant a second thought. Despite DDN’s similarity to Christians burning Beatles records after John Lennon’s infamous “bigger than Jesus” comment—an event I assume most rock fans don’t sit around chuckling over—no one in these articles seems the slightest bit disturbed by the event’s original purpose.

Which is odd, since thinking about the various tensions that made the event so explosive is much more interesting than simply reminiscing over it or engaging in a mild bit of revisionist history—as in the Reader piece’s subheadline “the kids were alright.” That headline attributes this supposedly new take on DDN to Diane Alexander White whose recently displayed photographs from the night serve as the impetus for the article. Her perspective on DDN is much more thoughtful than any of the journalists’:

What her shots end up capturing is a moment in time—the south-side rock ’n’ roll youth culture of 1979 on the verge of pandemonium. “This was a backlash,” she says today, looking over her pictures. “[Disco] was so stylized, with pressed pants, white suits, collars outside of jackets, gold chains. The girls are blow-drying their hair to death. A lot of these kids identified it as very shallow, in the dress, in the repetitive beats in the music, crystallized in Saturday Night Fever.”

“To me, it wasn’t about the disco records being blown up,” White says. “It was everything leading up to it, which is what a lot of these pictures are.” It’s the kids themselves, “blue collar kids, kids whose parents were Sox fans. We were still churning out products in this town. You could still get a job at the steel mill.”

While she’s referring specifically to disco, White’s use of the word “backlash” is telling. The cultural backlash against the increased social freedoms (or moral failings, depending on your perspective) brought about by the revolutions of the late ’60s was about to help elect Ronald Reagan. And throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the Right would master the art of using irrelevant, but charged signifiers—e.g. that blow-dried hair; accusations of shallowness and vanity have been thrown against every Democratic candidate for president in my lifetime—to distract people from the real reasons steel mills were closing. White’s statement hints at that misdirected anger and also points up the sloppiness of backlash logic: whatever you think about Saturday Night Fever, you can’t pretend John Travolta’s character isn’t young, poor, and from Brooklyn—not a world away from Bridgeport, the neighborhood outside of Comiskey.

So what were these kids lashing back at? Class resentment was certainly justifiable; the Studio 54 version of disco culture was glamorous, coked-up, and sexy—totally out of reach for most people in 1979. One also can’t understate the sheer ubiquity of disco at its peak. Peter Shapiro’s history of the music, Turn the Beat Around, catalogs the way disco acted as a virus in American culture in 1979, infecting breakfast cereals, Sesame Street, and a long list of musicians, including Kiss, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, and even Frank Sinatra. Okay, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” is vile, granted, but why would disco kids wearing “white suits” or “gold chains” bother your average Van Halen* fan?

*1979 is a fascinating year for music, a genuine watershed, but I'm guessing that the kids at DDN weren’t listening to “Rapper’s Delight” or the Raincoats.

There aren’t a lot of photos accompanying that Reader piece, but in all of the samples, the subjects are overwhelmingly white and male. Disco is the opposite: gay, black, Latino, female. As Shapiro puts it:
Even when it was purveyed by chancers and formulaic followers of fashion, disco was a remarkable moment in American cultural history, a time when female voices (even if they were singing the words of mostly male songwriters and producers) temporarily drowned out the beefy bluster that usually characterizes America’s discourse. Not since Noel Coward’s reinvention of Tin Pan Alley had articulations of gay pleasure and style been so popular.
Disco’s status as supremely lame cultural punching bag hasn’t improved much since 1979. Meanwhile rock maintains its role as the bastion of authenticity in music, despite that notion being thoroughly, repeatedly debunked by music critics. Nonetheless, I take comfort in knowing that while disco was mortally wounded on July 13, 1979, it beat out rock for cultural influence. Rock over the last thirty years isn’t a complete wasteland, but disco’s children (rap and house, especially) took over, giving birth to constantly evolving forms of electronic music and decisively shaping the glossy, digital sound of pop music over three decades. Those forms and sounds made in disco’s wake have defined the new in music, while rock has mostly offered variations on the old.

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